Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Unemployment Benefits and the American Standard of Living

The debate about extending unemployment insurance benefits another time is coming to a head in Congress. So far, fiscal issues have driven the argument because Republicans have resisted on the grounds that unemployment benefits will add to the deficit. The battle over whether or not to offset the cost of benefits with other spending cuts or tax increases seems to be pretty economically one-sided, so Republicans have resorted to calling the unemployed lazy. Advantage: Democrats.

One thing I haven't seen in the debate, however, is an invocation of how this issue would have been framed a half-century ago. It may be useful for Democrats to revisit that era. A consensus emerged after World War II that there was such a thing as an "American standard of living," tied very closely ideologically and rhetorically to an "American way of life" that the nation had just fought to defend. It was government's role, liberals argued, to preserve that standard of living for all citizens. Pro-growth policies were part of that. But so was a social safety net, which ensured that in such an affluent society the unlucky didn't have to suffer unduly. It became part of your rights as a citizen not to lose everything during economic hard times, as was the case for so many during the Depression. Lifting people up to that American standard of living was the central ethos of the Great Society and the welfare system it expanded.

While that idea of government intervening to lift people out of poverty as part of the wages of their citizenship is a much tougher political sell now days, protecting their standard of living if they were gainfully employed and are no longer should not be. Perhaps resurrecting this old liberal language would be another way to hold the advocates of an "ownership society" to the fires of their own economic disaster.

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